Learn what a calligram is and fall in love with the avant-garde poetry that captivated the world

What is a calligram? why is it recognized among pen and paper artists? Basically, literary geniuses describe it as a poem to look at. So, if you know what poetry is and enjoy this art, you will love what we will explain in this blog post.

why do we say it so convincingly? Well, to answer this question, the writer Majo Moirón, teacher of the online course the art of writing, questions the need to be pigeonholed in a genre and argues that they are all hybrids, because they merge with each other, just as calligrams do with literature and drawing. So, would you dare to do something different?

We will tell you what a calligram is, its characteristics and history, then you will learn how to make a calligram and, finally, we will show you some examples of calligrams to inspire you. dare to use this innovative technique in literature!

what is a calligram?

The definition of calligram was proposed by the French artist and poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1918 to name his innovative works, which were inspired by Chinese characters. Well, the term comes from the French calligrammey, according to its etiology, it is the fusion between an image and the word.

So, what are calligrams? They are poems, phrases or a set of words that form a figure referring to the theme of the writing, that is, the calligraphy or typography of the work is responsible for configuring a visual icon.

In a calligram, the image created expresses visually what the word or words say, as in visual poetry. However, sometimes the drawings do not have an obvious relationship with what is written in the poem.

what is a calligram for?

The purpose of calligrams is to entertain the audience and to awaken the artist’s creativity to play with words and forms. to do this, the text and the image need to have a harmonious fusion, that only by looking at it you can understand it instantly.

It also requires breaking with the traditional schemes of literature to create innovative elements, as proposed by avant-garde currents and literary cubism.

In fact, we can see what a calligram is since the Greek Hellenistic era and the Middle Ages, as well as in Hindu cultures. However, nowadays, this artistic technique has been modernized; it has been displaced in the world of literature and taken over by advertising, comics and digital illustration.

In the 20th century, the artist representing the artistic current of cubism and avant-gardism in Europe, Guillaume Apollinaire, used play or playful language as the fundamental engine to understand how to make a calligram. the playful way of presenting literature, especially for people who do not enjoy reading, was the root of the technique’s success.

Now that you know what a calligram is and what it is used for, we will give you a brief summary of its history.

caligrama de Guillaume Apollinaire

Image: Guillaume Apollinaire

History of calligrams

Although it was not until the 20th century that the definition of calligram was coined, this representation of literary art is first seen in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome in the 4th century .

Calligrams, at that time, were a poetic modality with religious origins performed by the poets of the Hellenistic era. This art came from the offerings, which carried verses adapted to the shape of the object, referring to the name of the donor and the occasion of the donation. later, the literary technique was imitated by Roman poets, with the technopaegnia and the carmina figurata.

carmina figurata caligrama

Image: Ermitea

Later, during the Middle Ages, calligrams became a widely used visual poetry technique; many examples of calligrams in prose can even be found.

Later, in the 16th century, during the Renaissance era, humanism arose, a current of thought which, after discovering the classical Greek and Latin calligrams, sought to imitate this form of poetry in “vulgar languages”; that is, in the everyday language of the people of the streets.

This transformation from literary to popular language was one of the reasons for the revitalization of the poetic genre and the success of calligrams at the time.

During that time, the artists Julio César Scaligero and Francois Rabelais were icons of this poetic genre. On the one hand, Julio César Scaligero published two calligrams inspired by Apollinaire’s Simmias: one in the form of a nightingale’s egg and the other in the form of a swan’s egg.

On the other hand, François Rabelais published, in 1572, a book with several calligrams of poems composed by his students, including a Latin flute, a labyrinth, Greek wings and a rhombus.

caligrama de Julio César Scaligero

Image: Language and literature materials

Later, in the Baroque era, examples of calligrams were seen in the Netherlands, Italy, France, England and, above all, in Germany. During these years, the shape of the cup and the heart predominated for letters of congratulation and condolences.

The most famous calligrams of the time were those of the poets of the Nuremberg school, who created multiple works with this format, as they aimed to merge painting and poetry.

However, there is no evidence of the existence of calligrams in Spanish, although the possibility that there have been isolated cases without historical importance in literature is not excluded.

Later, in the 18th century, Germany continued to be the capital of calligrams in Europe, which were focused on everyday events. On the other hand, in the region of France, other types of calligrams were seen, such as compositions in political satires.

In the 19th and 20th century, it became known what a calligram is thanks to the work published by Lewis Carroll in the third chapter of his famous book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

However, as previously mentioned, it was not until 1918 when the French poet and critic Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky, better known as Guillaume Apollinaire, proposed what a calligram is in his work Calligrammes: Poèmes de la Paix et de la Guerre (1913-1916).

With this book, along with the rise of the avant-garde movement of the 1920s, calligrams “revived” because of their innovative characteristics and forms. they became fashionable all over Europe!

On the other hand,in Latin America, the eagerness to innovate was similar to the European currents of thought; in this case, with Latin American avant-garde literature. For example, one of the most famous calligrams in Spanish is by the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, Triángulo armónico, which is in his book Canciones en la noche (1913).

Finally, in the 21st century, the figure of the calligram was modernized and left the world of literary intellectuals to invade the mainstream through the resources of advertising and illustration.

triángulo armónico caligrama

Image: “Harmonic Triangle” – Vicente Huidobro

We learned what a calligram is and its history, but what are its characteristics? keep reading and you’ll find out!

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Calligram characteristics

After knowing what a calligram is, we will now teach you what are the characteristics that differentiate this form of poetry from other artistic manifestations and why it is still valid today.

1. Simple image

One of the most important characteristics of calligrams is that they must be easy to read; that is, what is written must be easy to read and understand. If it becomes complicated to decipher the written message of the calligram, the whole meaning of the work is lost. Our advice is to cover only one theme so that the calligram shows the essence of the theme.

We know that it can be a bit difficult to adapt the text to a form, so it requires you to use all your creative skills to make calligrams that conceptualize the message of your poem. Also, we suggest you learn how to do artistic calligraphy to polish your designs.

2. Designing by hand

Calligrams are usually made by hand, as it is easier to accommodate the figure to your convenience with ease. However, today, with the development of technology, you can learn how to make calligrams with digital illustration.

3. Digestible text

As for their difficulty, you can make calligrams from short and simple poems to elaborate them in a short time. Also, you can make works of poems a little longer and with more complex themes. what defines a calligram is to conceptualize a written text in a visual image.

4. Average length

If we talk about its length, the calligram of a poem should be short or medium, as it makes it easier for the verses to be understood despite the form you decide to give to the text. If you decide to use a text that is too long, it will be very difficult to follow the content and the work may lose meaning.

5. Varied themes

Finally, the themes of this type of poetry are infinite. It is very common to find calligrams about love, nature and the author’s emotions. However, there are no parameters on what can be done or not, as long as the message of the work is felt.

caligramas de tortuga

Image: Academia Hiperbreves

now we know what a calligram is and its characteristics! Did you know that there are different types? We present you the main ones!

Types of calligrams

Although there is not really a categorization for calligrams in the world of literature, some authors dare to differentiate them according to their objectives .

1. Literary calligrams

The main and most common is the literary calligram, which is responsible for representing poems and phrases. the illustrations allude to the theme of the verses of poetry, but, in general, the figure is quite free and depends on the creativity and skills of the author.

Caligramas literarios de mariposa

Image: My window to the world

2. Advertising calligrams

On the other hand, the second type of calligram is the advertising calligram, which is used as a marketing tool.

For example, fast food franchises often use calligrams to present some of the products through iconic phrases of the brand or texts related to the campaign.

caligrama publicitario de Nike

Image: Nike

3. Awareness calligrams

Finally, there are awareness calligrams, which, as their name explains, are literary elements that are responsible for raising awareness in society about recurring issues.

In fact, it has been seen that pacifist, vegetarian, feminist and human rights protection movements have used this technique to reach mainstream audiences.

Caligramas de concientización

Image: Pinterest

You already know what a calligram is, its characteristics and types. But how to make your own calligram?

how to make a calligram by hand?

You’ve learned what a calligram is, now we’ll teach you how to create your own. Next, we will see how to make a calligram step by step with this guide.

Since this is a tutorial for beginners, you’ll find it much easier to start learning basic shapes and then gradually move on to more complex and challenging compositions.

Remember, though, that none of these steps on how to make a calligram are definitive, as you can adapt them according to your needs.

1. Write a poem

The first thing you have to do is write the poem to create the calligram. Keep in mind that it should not be too long, but it should have enough words so that you can form your drawing related to the theme.

2. Draw a pencil sketch

Take a blank sheet of paper, a pencil and an eraser to create the outline of the drawing. Then, begin to delimit where the words of the poem will go and arrange them to form the calligram. We recommend that you mark where the text begins and where it ends. Then, you can start writing and erasing until you like the final product.

try some of these daily drawing exercises!

3. Clean it up with a pen

With a pen, go over the pencil drawing to create the desired shape of the calligram. You can also use colored pencils, pens, markers, etc. Take advantage of the resources available to you!

4. Erase the pencil drawing

To avoid showing the lines you drew in pencil, take an eraser and, being careful not to ruin the ink, erase the base drawing.


Templates for calligraphy exercises

Download our free calligraphy exercise templates and achieve an enviable lettering.

how to make digital calligrams?

If you want to go beyond paper and pencil, and want to know how to make a calligram online, then we will tell you how to create it in simple steps.

To do this, we will make a calligram of the XXI century using the Adobe Photoshop program, so open it at once and let’s start with the magic.

1. Import the base image

Once you have opened the program, import the image that will be the base of your calligram in any dimension you prefer. In this case, we’ll use a stock photo of a smiling woman with the dimensions 1200 px x 795 px.

imagen base de caligrama digitalSource: Media Loot

2. Create a duplicate layer and change the image to black and white

To make your calligram stand out from the rest, it will be necessary to make some modifications to the base photo. Well, click on the Layer > Duplicate Layer option. Then, name this layer “B & W” and click OK.

Next, select the “B & W” layer in the panel and go to Image> Adjustments> Desaturate. Finally, go to Layer> Duplicate Layer. Name this layer “Mapping” and click OK.

Tip: if your desaturated image doesn’t have a good contrast, you can increase it a bit by using Brightness / Contrast in the Image> Adjustments menu.

imagen base del caligrama en blanco y negro Source: Media Loot

3. Apply filters on your base image

Let’s continue with some tweaks to make your digital calligram look good. Go to Filter> Blur> Gaussian Blur and set the Radius to 5px. If your image is larger, we recommend entering a higher Radius value.

As a reference, for a 1200px image a value of 5px will be fine, but if your image is 3000px a value between 8/10 for the Radius will work.

Next, click on File> Save As and store this document as “DisplacementMap.psd” anywhere you want (remember where you saved it). Finally, click on the “Mapping” layer in the Layers panel and delete it by clicking on the Delete Layer icon.

filtros en la imagen base del caligrama digitalSource: Media Loot

4. Paste the text on the image that will form your calligram

Now comes the fun part. Select the Text tool (T) and draw a box all over the canvas. Next, paste your text into it and make sure it covers all the dimensions of the canvas to achieve the calligram effect.

With the text layer still selected, go to the Paragraph tab, uncheck the “Hyphenate” option and set the paragraph style to “Justify all”.

Then go to Filter> Distort> Offset. Then click OK to rasterize the text layer. Automatically, the Offset window will open, set the following values and click OK.

pegar el texto en la imagen base del caligrama digital

Source: Media Loot

5. Merge the text with the image

You are now just a few steps away from completing your own digital calligram. let’s continue! Browse to the “DisplacementMap.psd” file you saved earlier and click Open. As you can see, the text is now mapped using the blurred image you made earlier.

Once you have done this step on how to make a calligram, turn off the visibility of the text layer in the panel by clicking on the eye icon next to the layer name. Then, hold down the Control key on your keyboard and click on the text layer’s thumbnail in the panel to select the content.

Next, go to Edit> Copy Merge and right after that, click on File> New. In no time, it will automatically set the dimensions of the new document to the ones you just copied, so you just need to name it “Text Portrait Effect” and click OK.

Efecto de retrato de texto en PhotoshopSource: Media Loot

6. Polish the last details of your digital calligram

After creating this new document, go to the menu and click Edit > Paste. then choose the Background layer and go to Edit> Fill. In the Content section, select “Black” from the drop-down menu. Make sure you have the blend mode set to “Normal” and the Opacity set to 100%, then click OK.

Now, merge the layer over the background (usually called “Layer 1”) and go to Filter> Sharpen> Smart Sharpen and apply the following values. that’s it! You have now made your first digital calligram quickly and easily.

Be careful: if your image is larger, you may need to increase these values to match the photo’s settings so that your digital calligram doesn’t look distorted.

caligrama digitalSource: Media Loot

Now that you’ve learned how to make a digital calligram, reduce the image size to see how the text becomes a sort of pattern or texture at a far distance while the image is clearly visible, and how the text becomes more legible when you see it up close. Amazing, isn’t it?

ejemplo de caligrama digitalSource: Media Loot

Examples of calligrams

As we’ve told you throughout the article, there are multiple ways to make calligrams. if you are wondering what is the most important thing in a calligram, inspiration! Therefore, we leave you some examples that can awaken your imagination when creating calligrams.

1. Volkswagen Calligram

caligrama de Volkswagen

Image: Volkswagen

2. Guitar Calligram

caligrama de guitarra

Image: Pinterest

3. Calligram of fast food

ejemplo de caligrama publicitario de fast food

Image: Jerm

4. Calligram of an eye

ejemplo de caligrama de un ojo

Image: Author unknown

5. Calligram of Pokemon

ejemplo de caligrama de Pokemón

Image: Frikimaestro

We hope you found the information in the article useful. You already know what a calligram is and its characteristics. In addition, you know how to make a calligram step by step and you have several examples to inspire you.

what did you think about the origin of the calligram and its evolution over time? Now, use your new knowledge to create innovative elements in the art world. if you want to develop your skills and learn about a new world of possibilities, we recommend our online lifestyle courses.

dare to create more playful and entertaining literature! We know you’ll do amazing.

Thanks for reading us and best of luck in your literary career.

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